India's telecom service providers have started to feel the strain caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Telecom services have become a lifeline for people as they are forced to work from and spend more time at home.
The operators are likely to record disappointing customer numbers for March as prospective clients are forced to spend time indoors. That said, average revenue per user will probably rise as existing customers consume more data from inside their homes. Besides working from home, people will spend longer on streaming services, like Netflix, to entertain themselves.
Bharti Airtel has asked all the service providers, including Reliance Jio, Vodafone Idea, BSNL and MTNL, to activate intra-circle roaming (ICR) so that operators can provide seamless connectivity while India goes under lockdown.
"This will be particularly relevant, where a site is shut or where the TSP [telecom service provider] is not able to manage the uptime, so that we can collectively ensure that the services are not interrupted," Airtel said in a letter to the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) and other service providers. This would be in line with the standard operating procedure for telecom services in case of disaster, as issued by the DoT. But it remains unclear whether ICR is now operational. Airtel has also said it is fast-tracking its network rollout to ensure it can maintain service quality as usage surges.
"Over 1 million basestations, several hundred thousand kilometers of fiber, thousands of switching centers, network operation centers and call centers are operating to ensure that every Indian remains connected at this difficult point in our lives," wrote Sunil Bharti Mittal, the chairman of Airtel, in a newspaper column.
He also unequivocally said it is time for authorities to reduce the tax burden on telcos. India's communications service providers have huge debts and still owe billions in licensing payments and other fees. (See Vodafone's never-ending Indian agony, India delays 5G spectrum auction on financial woes and India's top court deals yet another blow to its telcos.)
"All three private players must lay down their arms and come together to share networks to ensure all customers of the country are served well. GoI [government of India] should urgently implement the recommendations of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) to reduce the burden of taxes and levies – essentially, stall all actions that can strain the financials of the few remaining operators. For it's vital that these few keep their lights on, and the nation stays connected," says Mittal in his strongly worded column.
Jio, Airtel's archrival, has also come up with several measures for providing seamless connectivity to its subscribers. Through its Basic JioFiber broadband offer, it says it will provide 10Mbit/s connectivity wherever feasible without any service charges. In a press release issued this week, Jio also said it would double data allowances across all plans for JioFiber subscribers to help them work from home.
"As its ongoing commitment, Jio is ensuring that its mobility services are up and running at all times with the deployment of essential teams on rotation round the clock across the country," says the press release issued by the company.
Moreover, Jio Haptik Technologies, also a part of the Reliance Industries group, has teamed up with the Indian government to develop a WhatsApp chatbot called "MyGov Corona Helpdesk" that will answer queries about the coronavirus outbreak.
In addition, Jio is combining its digital capabilities with Microsoft Teams, the software giant's unified comms application, to support workers in different industries.
State-owned BSNL is also doing its part. Its Work@home broadband plan has been made freely available to landline subscribers who do not currently use BSNL's broadband services. Apart from helping people to work from home, this should drive more BSNL customers away from basic landline services and into broadband.
— Gagandeep Kaur, contributing editor, special to Light Reading